Real story of Dr. King could inspire action; instead, we hear feel-good whitewash
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be 77 on Sunday. He has been dead for 38 years. As his living memory fades, replaced by a feel-good "I have a dream" whitewash that ignores much of what he stood for and fought against, it's more important than ever to recapture the true history of Dr. King -- because much of what he fought against is resurfacing or still with us today.
King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks and, as the Quakers say, spoke truth to power. King is also remembered because, among a number of brave and committed civil rights leaders and activists, he had a flair for self-promotion, a style that also appealed to white liberals, and the extraordinary social strength of the black Southern churches behind him. And because he died before he had a chance to be widely believed a relic or buffoon.
What little history TV will give us in the next few days is at least as much about forgetting as about remembering, as much about self-congratulatory patriotism that King was American as self-examination that American racism made him necessary and that government, at every level, sought to destroy him. We hear "I have a dream"; we don't hear his powerful indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don't see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don't hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.
And we forget that of those many dreams King had, only one -- equal access for non-whites -- is significantly realized today. A half-century after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, even that is only partly achieved. Blacks are being systematically disenfranchised in our presidential elections, and affirmative action and school desegregation are all but dead. Urban school districts across the country these days are as segregated and unequal as ever, and the imminent confirmation of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court likely heralds a new era where employers and landlords can discriminate with near-impunity.
Opponents of affirmative action and racial equality can claim King's mantle and "if he were alive today" approval only because in 2006, pop culture's MLK has no politics. And, for that matter, no faith. For white America, King's soft-focus image often reinforces white supremacism. "See? We're not so bad. We honor him now. Why don't those black people just get over it, anyway? We did."
All that is a lie. Dr. King's vision is today as urgent as ever. While Jim Crow and the cruelties of overt segregation are now largely unimaginable, much remains to be done. And for those who carry King's banner, the challenges of apathy and official hostility remain the same: the FBI and NSA spying on peace groups, listening to phone calls, monitoring e-mails. An administration -- voted for by almost no African-Americans -- that reviles nonviolence and labels its critics as treasonous (rather than as communist dupes). And the moral outrage of Americans, that made King's work so politically effective? We don't do that any more. We can torture thousands of mostly innocent Iraqis and Afghans, in plain sight, and nobody is held accountable. It'd take a whole lot more than Bull Connor's police dogs to make the news today.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has become a Hallmark Card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a file photo for sneakers or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by dissembling Cabinet members and ungrateful Supreme Court justices. Be sure to check out the Three-Day-Only White Sale at WalMart. Always lower prices. Always.
King deserves better. We all do.
Good rant. Saves me from having to do it. Read the rest.
Dr. King is gone, but a lot of what he tried to change is still here and still needs to be changed. Continue to speak truth to power.